The problem with refs isn't that they're not fit enough, it's that they've never played the game

When Sir Alex Ferguson questioned whether referees were physically fit enough to officiate in the maelstrom of the Premier League, I think like the proverbial canine he selected the wrong tree to bark up.

Two weekends ago, I can honestly say I've never seen such a collection of incompetence from officials in all the time I've been covering English football. There were nine red cards issued in the top-flight, and I reckon five or even six were wrong. This weekend, it wasn't much better.

But it was not because the refs weren't fit enough to keep up with play, it was because of a more fundamental reason - because they were the kids who sat at the front of the class and had stuff thrown at the back of their heads.

Watch those dismissals from a fortnight ago again, and two players - Giovanni of Hull and Bilyaletdinov of Everton - slipped just as they were about to tackle, making their challenge look immeasurably worse than it actually was. Jamie Carragher won the ball, and Villa's Carlos Cueller made two challenges where he took neither ball nor man.

It got even worse this weekend, if that were possible. Portsmouth's Jamie O'Hara got himself booked for being punched in the face, while the offender, Blackburn's Pascal Chimbonda, escaped with the same punishment for what amounted to assault.

Then there was the farce of Stamford Bridge on Sunday, and, worst of all, the penalty awarded to Liverpool on Monday evening when it was clear that David Ngog had blatantly cheated. All of those decisions weren't just natural human error, they were much worse and I'll tell you why. Because those kids at the front of the class busy swotting never played football.

To be a top-flight referee you have to start so early that you can't possibly have played the game at any reasonable level at all. I remember from my university days one of the undergraduates, who now officiates at a high level, reffing matches constantly even back then, despite being unable to kick a ball in anger. In fact, because he couldn't kick a bloody ball in anger.

If you are looking for the next Stephen Hawking - who, incidentally, is a Crewe Alex fan for his troubles - then sure, go to the front of the class and cultivate the swots, but not if you are looking for someone who knows the subtleties of football.

That's why, when the likes of Giovanni slips, they can't recognise that, having never played the game. And when Cueller makes a perfectly respectable challenge, they can't recognise that either.

The answer is simple. Instead of recruiting referees from candidates who have been doing the job since they were in their teens, the FA needs to look at the lower leagues, where there are plenty of experienced old pros coming to the end of their careers, desperately searching for a new career.

It works in cricket, with most umpires being former pros that are fast-tracked into the position. It could work in football too, because in the lower leagues players don't tend to earn enough to walk away into secure retirement. In fact, refs probably earn more than them.

And there would be another bonus to appease Sir Alex. They'd be match fit too...

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williamhill.com

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